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PREHISTORIC ELEPHANTS OF DUPAGE COUNTY
by Jack MacRae, Naturalist
February 23, 2013
About 50 to 55 million years ago, dinosaurs became extinct and elephants first appeared. In those early times, elephants were very small - about the size of pigs.
As the eons passed, elephants grew larger and evolved into two distinct species - Mastodons and Mammoths. The Mastodon first appeared about 26 million years ago and was known in Europe and Asia. The Mastodon later migrated to North America. The first Mammoths appeared about 3 million years ago. Mammoths occupied much of the northern portions of the Earth, including Siberia, northern Europe and many areas of North America.
Today's African elephant is closely related to the Mastodon and the Asian elephant is closely related to the Mammoth, although they are distinct and separate species. Mastodons were browsers and Mammoths were grazers. Because of these dietary preferences, the structure, function and appearance of their teeth evolved differently. The teeth of Mastodons are solid masses of scrolled ridges. The teeth of Mammoths are molar like. This makes it possible to easily identify skeletal remains in a dig if tooth fragments are also found. As Mammoth teeth wore down, each tooth could be replaced six times. When the last teeth were gone, the Mammoth was unable to eat, resulting in starvation and death.
Mammoth tusks extended straight forward from the skull but were also known to curve downward. Mastodon tusks differed from Mammoth tusks by extending forward and curling upward dramatically. The tusks were likely used as shovels to plow through snow or obstructions in search of food. Tusks were extensions of teeth and easily grew ten to fifteen feet in length. Tusks were also used in combat.
The Mastodon stored fat on its back in one large hump. The Mammoth stored fat in two humps on its head and back.
Mastodons and Mammoths weighed from five to six tons. They stood eight to ten feet tall at the shoulder, reached adulthood at age 20 and lived about 60 to 70 years. Most likely, females and infants traveled in herds, similar to today's elephants, while adult males struck out to form new herds. The thick and wooly fur of the Mastodons and Mammoths made it possible for them to survive the frigid climate and icy landscapes of the Ice Age. Mastodon and Mammoth fur found in archeological digs was usually dark brown but blonde hairs have also been discovered.
Jack identified three archeological sites where ancient Mammoth and Mastodon bones were discovered in DuPage County. Vegetation and pollen were also found in the soil during these digs. Black spruce pine cones were discovered, dating one dig area to about 13,000 years old.
Excavation One - October 20, 1963 Perry Mastodon, Churchill Hill, Glen Ellyn, behind the Joseph Perry house on River Drive. The bones are on display at Wheaton College.
Excavation Two - June 21, 1977
Blackwell Forest Preserve Mammoth
The remains are on display at the Fullersburg Woods Nature Center
Excavation Three - August 1, 2005
Pratts Wayne Woods Mastodon
The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County owns all three properties where these bones were found.
The Mammoth displayed at the Fullersburg Woods Nature Center was a female believed to be about 25-30 years old. It is unknown whether she died of natural causes or if she was hunted by humans for food. Except for her skull, almost her entire skeleton was found in tact during the excavation.
The Last Glacial Age was coming to an end about 18,000 thousand years ago. As the climate warmed, glaciers began to melt and recede. Human migrations expanded into these new ice-free lands in search of game. Fifteen thousand years ago, humans were living in North America. These early tribes crossed over a land bridge through the Bering Strait from Russia. They brought their Clovis culture and hunting tools with them.
Following the arrival of humans in North America, the Mammoths and Mastodons and other large mega fauna of the North American continent gradually became extinct. It is not known whether early humans brought diseases with them which the immune systems of these large mammals could not survive, or whether hunting by humans, combined with climate and habitat change, caused their extinctions.
The large scale development and excavation of land in the Chicago area has opened archaeological sites and resulted in the discovery of ancient bones. It is likely that more burial sites and bones lie undisturbed and undiscovered in areas of rural Illinois and nearby states where development has not yet occurred.
For more information about the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, go to www.dupageforest.com/ Or visit the Fullersburg Woods Nature Center, 3609 Spring Road, Oak Brook, IL 60523 to view the Blackwell Mammoth.
Photos by Matthew Jurczyk and Ken Spale
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